"Putting out this work is like climbing a mountain:" An Interview with Matana Roberts

Matana Roberts' artistic practice exists at the intersection of various established traditions without expressing slavish devotion to any particular musical lineage. She plays saxophone and has been classified as a jazz artist, but she is also signed to Montreal-based Constellation Records; a label renowned for their association with post-rock juggernaut Godspeed! You Black Emperor, but increasingly a haven for uncompromising artist-driven projects whose only stylistic affinity is a relentless desire to push the boundaries of genre. She is a Chicago native, cutting her teeth in that city’s illustrious improvisation scene, and although she has called New York City home for over a decade, she shies away from the endless self-promotion that many of the city’s creative types use for their careers. Roberts maybe an avid Twitter, Instagram and Tumblr user, but she resides on a boat in Sheepshead Bay, far away from the more happening enclaves of Manhattan and North Brooklyn.  Following the release of COIN COIN Chapter Two: Mississippi Moonchile in 2013, Matana's career entered a new phase of visibility and cultural impact in 2014, when she received the Herb Alpert Award and the Doris Duke Impact Award.
 
The stage was set for Robert’s most ambitious COIN COIN release to date, COIN COIN Chapter Three: river run thee is the latest installment of a twelve-part series, and the first solo chapter after two previous ensemble-based chapters. The conceptual background of river run thee incorporates a sojourn through the American South, the discovery of a 200-year-old ship captain’s diary, and seamlessely layered graphic scores, spoken word and live overdubs. In the hands of a lesser artist, these disparate elements might result in a confounding cacophony or simply a well-intentioned but over-ambitious "difficult album," but Roberts grounds river run thee in the human and the narrative, weaving her voice and a variety of melodies through the "panoramic sound quilting" that distinguishes her work. river run thee is another work of visceral sonic power and staggering depth from one of the continent’s most profound experimentalists (her term). AdHoc spoke with Matana by telephone while she endured a typically frigid January afternoon on her boat.
 
COIN COIN Chapter Three: river run thee is released Tuesday, February 3 on Constellation Records. Matana Roberts will play a record release show at Union Pool with Rain Machine and Ryan Sawyer/Nate Wooley/C.Spencer Yeh trio that night.
 
 
How did you end up living on a boat in Brooklyn?
 
I moved here in October. I spend a lot of time on the waterways, away from music. I kayak and surf and learned how to paddleboard through some free programming that happens on the Hudson. I got really into the water community in New York City, and you get into this thing where you start geeking out about water craft. I woke up one day last year and I was like “OK, I wanna get my Skipper’s License,” not knowing that many months later I would move onto a boat. There’s a boatel community in Queens, and I was curious what people were doing out there. One late night I just decided to look for a boat for rent. I’ve always wanted to live on a boat and it just so happened this whole last year I’ve been spending dealing with this Ship Captain’s diary and getting better at being out on the water myself. Being a New Yorker, it’s just hard to do stuff. So I thought living on the boat would also give me a chance to combine some things that I’m really into, and live in a way that is more reflective of my core values of caring about the environment and looking at the direct impact that I have as a human.
 
I’ve always tried to live in a way so that I go toward the things that happen, not navigate them.. When I started working on this record I had no idea that it would end with me being finished with the record and then a month later moving on to a boat. I couldn’t plan that if I tried!
 
I was living in Harlem and it was not a very positive space and I had to get going. Originally I was looking into the Rockaways but I’m still in Brooklyn. I’m in Sheepshead Bay, on the bottom [of the borough]! It’s far, but Brooklyn is so popular now and I wanted to get an experience of what Old Brooklyn is like. I love it, but I also feel like I'm in a foreign country because it’s a cinematic version of a Brooklyn I’ve never known. There are just so many things that I’m learning every day about this city that I thought I knew that I didn’t know.
Where did you find the spoken word material on the new record?
 
I started spending a lot of time reading abolitionist books and papers while doing some more research on the ancestry project. I was looking for old photographs of slaves. I collect old photographs and ephemera and its in a lot of my visual scores or on the album covers. I was looking for photos and there were these old photos that I found on the internet that supposedly were the first photos of Western slaves from Africa. They weren’t from America, they were on their way to England. This sea captain from Britain would capture these slave ships and take the ships back to Africa and release the slaves and destroy the ships. They also took pictures of the slaves and African people. The photos are from a book Dhow Chasing in Zanzibar Waters by G.L. Sullivan. It’s his ship’s log about his time between 1860 to around 1875. I got a residency at Amherst College and they were able to locate this book for me. It’s a really amazing document and its written from an abolitionist propaganda perspective.
 
They talk about survival during that time, the conditions of slaves that they rescued, ship life. Like, being a sailor but not knowing how to swim [laughs]. One of my favorites stories is that a bunch of the men had gotten sick, and the sea dog had gotten sick. They couldn’t tell what might work to cure them, so they decided to use the poor dog as a test subject They thought that blood letting would work-- remember that? Blood letting? So they bled the dog, and I don’t think the dog survived.
 
Although this chapter of COIN COIN was always planned as a solo effort, it is coming off two ensemble records. What was the process like to get yourself into a space where you felt comfortable presenting a completely solo piece?
 
Coming out of the improv community in Chicago, there was always a focus on working on solo material. That was something I was exposed to pretty early on. I enjoyed doing just solo-- woman and horn alone sound experiments. But I wanted to put it in a way that would be even more challenging than I’ve dealt with in the past. This record is representative of that challenge. It was very hard to make this record because leading a band can be really fun, but at the same time as a player in a band you’re so dependent on all these other different aspects of the players that you choose to share with. For this, it was just all on me and I felt a lot of pressure. I was very nervous. But I felt that the music and the intention and the theme that I was exploring were all leading me in a good direction. Even if it turned out to be an utter failure, at least there would be some documentation of it.
 
Most artists at this point in their career-- I’ve been in New York almost 12 years-- move upstate. I might do that at some point, who knows. I’ve spent some time upstate. I left for a couple years and spent time in Montreal and that was really fascinating. But it is still in New York that I see all this spontaneous theater, spontaneous sound. I still want to have access to that but I realized I needed to have a home life that drew me home to work. When i came up with COIN COIN Chapter One I was living in a four-bedroom apartment with six other artists and it was insane.
 
 
 
How did traveling around the south last year influence this record?
 
I feel like spending time in the American South, if you are an American citizen, should be a birthright trip. I’ve been to some of the smallest little places in the farthest corners of the world. Seemingly so exotic, but no-- just go to Mississippi! Spend some time in Tennessee and parts of Louisiana. The trip really solidified for me what I didn’t completely understand about how this country navigates its history. I ran into people down there who are living staunchly in another cenutry. The only reason that gave me cheer is I could look at those people and smile and laugh whereas fifty or sixty years ago I might have been strung up on a tree. [...]
 
At the same time, I felt really sentimental and compassionate towards a lot of the people that I met. Meeting people who were honoring the confederate soldiers in their families that died. Coming across records of people in my own family that fought for the Confederacy as people of color. It was really eye opening to the point that it's going to have to be a regular trip for me. 
 
What was sad about some of those places is seeing the social ills. Jackson, Mississippi is one of the most down-and-out southern cities I have ever been to. It’s supposedly a major city and you follow the Mississippi Blues Trail down there and it’s like Armageddon. Sitting in the Mississippi State Senate, being there when they congratulate one of their pages for being accepted to West Point. That just brought up so many things. Being clearly checked out by security before they even let me in. The moment they saw me. To be fair, I was there at the same time as some Hells Angels were there, and they got checked out the same way.
 
People in the South use certain words with me that in the north wouldn't bother me, but in the south it’s a problem. Like the history of the word “girl.” To have some 70-year-old Caucasian person in a diner in Memphis call me “girl,” that was really...I had to take a minute!
 
Have the events of the last few months-- Michael Brown, Eric Garner-- made you reconsider what direction future installments of the COIN COIN series might take?
 
The whole purpose of the COIN COIN series is to go through history to the modern era. There is a segment of the work that is going to be dealing with my inheritance of the black radical politics of the late 1970s, moving into how that informed my person. I’ve been waiting to work on that. I kind of regret not putting that out as the next chapter, but it just wasn’t the right time to do it. There are some things I’ve been involved in. I wrote a piece about Ferguson that premiered on Soundcloud. That’s still a work-in-progress; it wasn’t supposed to be part of the COIN COIN work, but I am probably going to weave it in there somehow. The conceptual material was based around the testimony of Darren Wilson and a lot of people involved in the case. I wish that this was not an issue that I have to speak on, but I now feel that because not enough of us have spoken up about it, I have to do more.
 
Who do you mean when you say “not enough of us” have spoken up?
 
People in general. It’s hard, it’s not that people were ignoring this issue, it’s just really hard to exist right now. There’s so much information coming at us, it’s so hard to retain some kind of focus. It’s tough to understand that what is going on here is also being mirrored in other places. Human rights abuses here are human rights abuses elsewhere. It’s also very personal to me because men in my family were profiled, and I was profiled myself two summers ago and last summer on the Williamsburg bridge. It kind of woke me up! I was already trying to figure out how to work against stop-and-frisk here in New York. I saw that as a problem after I got stopped. The Trayvon Martin case really spurred me, that was really shocking.
 
There’s this thing in 21st century online media where once you find one story of horribleness, the news media tries to find a way to connect it to all these other stories they can find. Then you have this whole sort of “trending tragedy.” But that wasn’t the case with this. There’s something wrong with the fact that I have cousins raising young African-American boys who have to have conversations about this when [the boys] turn 9 or 10. The conversation that African-American girls have is more about safety. Like, “America doesn’t really look for missing black women.” That has changed, that’s what I grew up with. But with the men in my family, that's a whole other thing. My father used to get stopped once a year by the cops, it was like Christmas. We moved into a house once where the neighbors called the cops.
 
My work gives me an anchor to feel like I can speak in a way that makes other people understand it’s not about hatred, it’s not about race so much as it is about class lines. The sad thing about the murder of those cops in Bed-Stuy...it was so obvious that something stupid like that was going to happen because of the way things were moving. It’s so sad and depressing that it happened in Bed-Stuy, of all places.
 
With all of this going on in the world politically, how do you maintain your attitude of openness and positivity, both in-person and via your online presence?
 
Memories of family members I grew up around. The way we dealt with history is we found a silver lining, a way to share with humor. To think about it a little differently, while still honoring what has actually happened. My parents were hardcore black radicals but they both grew up in families that articulated how to be compassionate to your fellow man, your fellow person. I feel like that’s probably ingrained in me.
 
In my online presence, I purposely try to stay positive because I feel like the internet has become this kind of dump. I would like to make people aware of things, but I feel like my life is so privileged. It’s so bizarre, I’ve got to do so many amazing things and I’m not done yet. I feel so much wonder at my life that i just can’t be a pessimist. You can't be a pessimist and make art, not in New York City! I’ve seen what that pessimism has done to friends and other artists, and it’s not the way to live, you can go down a really dark hole in this town and never get out of it.
 
 
Inner sleeve art for COIN COIN Chapter Three
 
 
You are still handling all of the logistics of your music career by yourself-- have you considered getting some kind of representation?
 
I have a really hard time getting my own management because people don’t know what do with me. They wanna say that I’m a “jazz musician.” I don’t take that as an insult, but I'm not really dealing with that tradition head on. I’m trying to be more of an experimentalist. Trying to find someone who understands that has been hard, but I’m at a point that I’ve never been in my career where I need more help. I’ve always been into doing it myself, and making personal connections to keep things in an authentic realm. But it’s at a point where I just can’t. It’s an impossible point. That’s a very special place to be and I won’t always be there. I feel very fortunate the way I’m able to explore, to morph into different communities. When I tour, it’s a mix of rock venues, experimental venues, underground venues, jazz venues. The goal with the work is to broaden the audience for this type of experimentalism as much as I can. This next phase is going to be about trying to figure out a way to prioritize better so I can have more work time. [...]
 
It’s shocking that I’ve been able to get to this point [on my own], but it wasn’t without a lot of help. If it wasn’t for Constellation...I don't think anyone else could have done what they’re doing with my work. They amaze me. They're a small team of folks that sit in an office and work 12 or 14 hour days on behalf of performing artists. They treated me so respectfully, with so much transparency.
 
You overdubbed this album live in the studio. What was that experience like?
 
It was super intense. I had already created the score that I wanted to work with in terms of textures and sound, and I still had not completely tried it live. I wanted to record it in a way that would be as lo-fi as possible. I could have done the whole thing with a ton of loop pedals, but I don’t want to get into that zone. I wanted to figure out a way to use the least amount of gear possible. The whole goal was to create an experience of dealing with this diary and with this trip to the South, as well as these modern issues that I deal with as an artist. I felt like the easiest way to do that would be by overdubbing.
 
I still have a lot to learn in terms of composition, and I still have a lot to learn in terms of being a good saxophone player and a communicator of sound. But I do know one of my strong points is improvisation. I have a way to access that that not everyone seems to have, and that’s a strong point that I need to use in the studio. There is so much improvisation on this record, much more than on the other COIN COIN records. Even the vocals are improvised. I was so proud of myself, I didn't know that I could pull that off. The melody on the first song I came up with on the spot in the studio. I wanted to give the listener the experience of this instantaneous, spontaneous thing, not going into the territory of. “You know, we did twelve takes of this, and this is the one.” I’m not really into that. That can turn out really beautifu,l but that’s just not how I'm trying to process it.
 
You have worked extensively with graphic scores in the past, but can you talk about your use of video scores?
 
Right now I’m just trying to figure out a way to create the same sort of vision with moving images that I use with the still image of the graphic score, and trying to figure out a way to keep that lo-fi. The moving image scores that I am working on starts from a graphic score base first. A lot of the collages that I make end up in the video scores. I’m trying to create an experience that the listener can combine with the sound that’s a bit more interactive than just “Here’s the visual, here’s the sound.” Once I figure out a way to do this that I like, I really wanna start experimenting with the video scores.
 
Would you then bring those video scores into live performance?
 
There is a video online of a show in Slovakia where I was messing around with it a bit. It’s definitely going to be a part of performing this record. There’s something about being encased in the image and in the sound. I’m trying to find a new way, I don’t want to create a spectacle. I’m a really visual person, a visual learner. That’s the only way I seem to learn things.
 
Any final thoughts?
 
I just wanna thank people for supporting me and listening. The life that I’m living on this boat would have been impossible without the support of so many people out there. I just want people to know that I hear them and I feel the support and its greatly appreciated.

 

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